Hoehm Town Happenings:“The Story of Jane “Naut” Kanniff–The “Witch” of West Nyack”

In recognition of Halloween, I thought it fitting to share this true story about a woman who was accused of being a witch–right here in Clarkstown! The accompanying images are the first place winners chosen from Clarkstown North (Jeremy Cazes) and Clarkstown South (Hannah Kim) of a contest held during the Town’s 225th Anniversary in 2016, which asked a very basic question: “What do you think Jane “Naut” Kanniff, The Witch of West Nyack looked like?” Each artist’s interpretation was based on the story that will serve as my column for this week.

Below is the Storyteller’s version of the The Story of Jane “Naut” Kanniff, which was compiled by Daniel Hanchrow and Clare Sheridan for The Historical Society of Rockland County in 2016.

Historians say the year was 1816, long after the famous Salem witch trials (1692), and more than fifty years after the last witch trial in the colonies.

The place was just down the road here, in the Hamlet known as Clarksville-although at the time, it may have just been called “The area between O’Blenis, corners and Pye’s corners Pye’s corner is down Germonds road, where it intersects with Strawtown. At the time, Germonds was called the New City road. O’Blenis corner was the intersection of modern West Nyack Road and Strawtown, where the 1841 Tavern currently stands. West Nyack Road would very soon become a part of the Nyack Turnpike which crossed the county from Suffern to Nyack.

On the Southwest corner of Pye’s Corners you can see a stream running downhill, and along this stream stood The Polhemus’ Grist Mill, which milled flour using the power of the stream to push the water wheel.

Most of the residents of the hamlet were of Dutch descent, sober in dress and demeanor. They almost all knew one another, and were a very social community. So, when Jane Kanniff moved here, the stage was set for a collision of worlds.

Jane, or as the locals came to know her, “Naut” Kanniff was the widow of a Scottish Physician. She was a single mother of a boy named Tobias Lowrie from a previous marriage. She wore brightly colored clothes- Parti-Colored, according to a 19th century historian, and wore her hair in “Queer styles”, who was rather unsocial in this place where everyone knew everyone else’s business – A stranger. A single mother (gasp! the horror) Two marriages! Strange clothes and hairstyles! But there was more. Jane had learned from her deceased husband much of the craft of healing, and made medicines and tinctures, which witnesses swore were very effective. She worked from her husband’ s old Materia Medica- a book we might call a Pharmacology, that identified medicinal herbs and roots, and how to prepare them.

So now, it is a Strange lady in a bizarre dress and hair who has been through two husbands and makes Healing Potions! Oh! But that’s not all! She had a black cat, and a talking Parrot!

And so, the rumors began. Naut talked to her demon familiar bird, and had a devil cat to do her bidding. She used her black magic to make potions, and clearly since they worked, she must be a witch! Because at that time, everyone knew only men could be doctors.

There was whispering. Children began to hurry past her house on their errands, afraid that the diabolical forces might eat them up, and destroy their everlasting souls. Soon enough, Jane got wind of people’s growing beliefs, which served to make her even less social, and maybe even a bit cantankerous, making her seem even more odd and frightening.

There was no one act of monstrous import that provoked the trial, but people began to blame any ill occurrence on Naut, instead of plain poor fortune. Some house wives had trouble churning their butter, and claimed when they finally got it out of the churn, there were charred hoofprints at the bottom, proving that the devil himself ruined their butter.

A respected member of the church spent a sleepless night listening to his cows lowing, and in the morning, he found the best milker of his herd standing in a cart. After that she never gave milk again. Obviously, witchcraft and Devilry. No chance dogs were chasing them or anything logical like that.

Even though these would be very suspect circumstances to us today, to these God-fearing Dutch, they were of the gravest concern. And though no sane legally appointed judge, even at that time, would even consider the charges, the people felt they must take the law into their own hands.

They decided that their most reputable citizens must act, and selected Abraham Cornelison to be the judge, and the jury were all local farmers. Now, Abraham Cornelison was the local physician, who no doubt was losing business to Jane Kanniff, and today, we would say he must recuse himself because he had a financial interest in the outcome of the trial. And it is thought that he even stoked these fears of witchcraft amongst the people. How very convenient it would have been for him if Jane were destroyed or banished…

They considered how they might try her, and their first thought was to bind her hands and feet, and throw her in a pond. If she was a witch, she would float, and then they could burn her at the stake. If she sank and drowned, it would prove her innocence. 

But even these people realized that that was going a bit too far. So instead, they chose another time-honored method of finding out if a woman was a witch- weighing her against a bible. Because it was believed that a witch would always weigh less than a bible.

The only place that had scales that could accommodate this procedure were at the Polhemus mill. The judge, jury, and locals gathered there, bringing Jane forth to seat her in the huge dish of the scale. Then in the other dish, they placed a Dutch Family Bible. This was no small book, but a huge, wood and brass bound tome that one would be hard pressed to call portable.

They released the pinning, hoping to see Jane rise to the rafters under the weight of the bible, but were disappointed. Jane easily outweighed the book, and sent it rising to the rafter beams.

There was a legend that Jane got her revenge, when a son of the miller was crushed at the mill under a hundred-pound wooden hammer. But historical evidence shows that while there was an incident of exactly that nature at that mill, it happened 40 years before Jane came to town.

Some of you may have heard these legends before, and even heard that there was a witch burned at the stake here in West Nyack, but those are unfounded stories that grew out of this little nearly-tragic piece of history.

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